Our loved ones may slowly be dying of sadness before they are claimed by COVID
By Mj Quiambao Reyes
April 1st marks the day my Tatay’s heart stopped—though it was much earlier than April Fools’ Day when he was killed by the pandemic.
If I were to paint a picture of his life, it would be an image of our decades-old dining table in the home I grew up in. Underneath the glass cover are the fragments that made up my father: photos, notes, IDs, and business cards of his children. Graduation pictures of my siblings and mine from decades ago could be seen as you enter the house, along with a collage of pictures of his beloved apos.
It was in the evenings spent with his family, drinking one to two bottles of beer with his sons, sons-in-law, and few good friends and in the mornings spent atop his motorcycle with my Nanay or with his grandsons that his heart found purpose to keep beating. For an aging father who always looked forward to family gatherings and who enjoyed talking about life, the series of lockdowns was a death sentence.
Prior to the pandemic, he was eagerly waiting for December 2020 to arrive. His sons and grandchildren abroad were all scheduled to come home. He was so excited he even had our ancestral home renovated and repainted a year ahead of our grand reunion. How his heart broke when the much awaited gathering did not happen. Can you imagine the turn his life took when the pandemic stripped him of all opportunities to meet his loved ones? Worse, the uncertainty of the longevity of the virus (and its many different variants) and the series of what seemed like an endless lockdown that also prevented him from traveling and visiting his sisters dimmed his hope, and yes, killed him softly.
Then came a call. “Walang pang amoy si Tatay. COVID yata, Atchi,” my sister told me. That time, there was a surge of new cases in NCR causing a stricter lockdown. It was not easy to travel. I had to call some authorities in the middle of the night just to ask for an emergency permit then drove early dawn along with oxygen tanks, vitamins, and other necessities.
To my initial relief, Tatay was almost asymptomatic. His vitals, oxygen level, and appetite were fine. He was smiling and reassuring me that this virus was nothing compared to the stage 4 cancer and the series of mild strokes he survived over the decades. I got too complacent with this knowledge, most especially with the sight of him being in almost perfect health, that I left for Manila after a day. Next time, I thought to myself. Next time, I’ll stay longer. The harsh reality is that the ‘next time’ is no longer possible now.
Losing a loved one is never easy. Losing one during the pandemic feels a hundred times worse. I couldn’t even grieve with my mother and sister as they had to self-quarantine. My siblings abroad, both based in different parts of the world, can only afford to set up altars with my father’s photo in their own homes. The only shared chance to grieve together as a family and console each other was during our small online ceremony.
We were unable to give my father the grand exit he deserved. It’s good we were able to celebrate his 75th birthday with a bang just before the pandemic struck. His sisters and relatives from Pampanga and his friends were all there to celebrate with us. We laughed and cried as we honored him, roasted him, and paid tribute to his 75 years of living, loving, erring, learning, giving, and forgiving. The smile never left my father’s face that night as he listened to us and realized how grateful we all were for having him as our Tatay and how much we deeply appreciated the big and small things he did for us. Looking back, maybe those ended up as our eulogies as we never got the chance to have one this time.
More than the grief and underneath the pain of losing him is the guilt of not being able to personally take care of him and spend more time with him for almost a year. The knowledge that our presence was not possible or that it was difficult for me to travel cannot ease that pain and deep regret. I’ll just take comfort in knowing how my Tatay lived a good and happy life—at least, before this pandemic.
This pandemic may have killed my Tatay twice but his death also taught us some very important lessons.
To not wait until things are no longer difficult before we decide to live and be happy. To continue to follow minimum health protocols without being paranoid that we forget to live and love.
Now, our family group chat with all the apos has been more active than ever. Our video calls with our Nanay have become more frequent, too. And yes, we’re spending more time with my mother now.
This we promise our Tatay: We will not die before we are dead.